Tag Archives: Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017

Sándor Kerekes: My friend and my neighbor, CEU

I have always been familiar with this downtown area, this prestigious, formerly tony district, called Lipótváros (Leopold Stadt), first built and populated by the aristocracy and the elegant set, and when they faded out of money, up and coming Jews made it their own. Here, a mere two blocks away from the classicist Basilica, is located CEU, Central European University, its headquarters ensconced in the classicist palace of the Count Festetich family. There are another five-six buildings spread around, former banks, corporate buildings, all housing different departments of the University, populating the place, already quite populous with endless streams of tourists, with students, teachers and hangers on, such as myself, for a good many years. Kitty-corner from CEU’s main building is the former historic Lipótvárosi Kaszinó, the once august social club of the richest Jews of Pest, which was the target of a time bomb attack by Jew-haters sometime in 1923, causing several deaths.

Photos by the author

Opposite, on the other side of Nádor Street, stands a yellow three-story classicist-style building. Lajos Kossuth once lived in it. And just a couple doors to the north, number 11 Nádor Street, is the art deco building that housed in the 1950s the National Planning Office, the economic heart of the murderous communist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi. This Planning Office was the employer of my mother, whom we regularly visited, my brother and I, because of the building’s loop-style elevator that swished up and down without an operator and which we rode going up on the one side and, after seeing the mechanism in the attic space, proceeded down on the other side countless times. They called this elevator type ”pater noster” because it kept going without ever stopping. This number 11 is also part of CEU now (the pater noster of course long gone), as is the building next door that was just completed last fall in the super modern, that is to say, super post-modern style, and it is wonderful.

All these buildings and a few more in the adjacent streets are open at most times to anybody interested in walking in, and there are plenty of people interested because there is a steady stream of programs, conferences, lectures, workshops going on almost all day long into the night on the most varied subjects. At the counters of the door keepers in every building a screen shows the programs, be they today, or next month, or several months ahead.

In 2001 when I started to visit Budapest with some regularity, I met a young man from New York who was teaching English writing skills to the students of the then minuscule CEU. We are still friends, and he is a tenured professor now. Over the years since, as we discovered the fantastically varied and excellent programs available to the interested public, we also met the most amazing people in the course of attending those conferences and lectures. And thanks to the opportunities there, we found out about facts and events that otherwise would never have come to our attention, nor would we have had any other way to find out about them. A close friend of ours is teaching and practicing psychology at CEU, another teaching Turkology, a third one is doing “only” plain history, uncovering the heretofore unknown events leading up to the Holocaust in Hungary, and another one is the researcher and translator of the Russian-Jewish literature that has never been heard of before in Hungary.

At a very interesting conference a few years ago I heard and met Deborah Lipstadt, the formidable historian, who put a dent into Holocaust denial for good. At the same conference I also met György Lázár from California, whom I have long admired for his excellent writing, and we became friends right then and there.

The CEU system of beaming intelligence and knowledge is somewhat obscure to me. I never needed to find out how it worked because it worked very well, and that was more than enough for me. But it is obvious that there is practically no scientist, professor, researcher, or lecturer who would not be glad to accept an invitation to present his thoughts or research results at CEU. I was at a lecture a few months ago where the presenter simply reported on what he was currently reading and what he was finding out from it, without really suggesting where this was taking him. That was a truly fascinating lecture.

Just as the “House of Fates” museum controversy was at its height, CEU hosted first the American historian who participated in the establishment and eventually the opening and operating of the Philadelphia Jewish Museum and then, a few months later, the Canadian historian who did more or less the same in Warsaw at the stupendous Jewish museum there. In fact, I found both lectures so engrossing and illuminating that I was compelled to write an open letter to Maria Schmidt, the Hungarian historian, who had the opportunity to do the same here, in Budapest, but was so inept and so biased that she probably lost that opportunity forever. She was not at these lectures but would have benefitted from them immensely.

It is also true that apart from the student community, the leaders and faculty of other universities were somewhat sluggish in expressing their views in favor of liberal and free education. Particularly distasteful was the response of Rector András Lánczi of Corvinus University, who claimed the exclusive right to voice the position of the University. This was, alas, too late because many members of the faculty had already spoken out strongly in defense of CEU. This, however, brought to the surface an element of sour grapes as it turned out from some complaints that the salaries of professors at CEU are five times those at Corvinus.

The sinister attack of the government against CEU, the unsuspecting sitting duck in the middle of town, was of course a shock and a scandal for almost everybody, except the close coterie of the Fidesz government. But to my wife and to me it was like a personal attack against the lifestyle we moved to Budapest to enjoy: the free and copious flow of ideas and information. This was to us, and I am sure to many other people I came to meet at CEU, an ignoble, sinister attempt to take away from us an important part of our lives, the intangible treasure we considered our own and are not prepared to give up. We are not giving it up because the excuses offered for taking it away are hollow lies that under no circumstances would justify robbing us, never mind robbing the students and faculty of the university. We are not letting go because it would be taken from us without compensation: the government doesn’t offer anything in return but empty bluster and conflicting lies that wouldn’t fool even an elementary student. And finally we refuse to let it go because this institution is an organic part of the city and of the country, producing something that could not be, and is not, produced anywhere else in Hungary, something so precious, so valuable, that it is one of the best things this country has ever produced and is a sampler of what this country, even in the midst of its sorry decline, is capable of producing.

There is, however, a silver lining, increasingly so. The wheel of fortune is slowly but quite perceptibly turning. The government of Viktor Orbán mindlessly plunged into this hate fest, in a few days completing the process from suggestion to legislation of putting this magnificent institution out of business. But what a sorry testimony it was to the ineptitude and shortsightedness of this government! What kind of people do they think these are? Will the CEU community buckle under helplessly? Yes, that is what they expected. But the resolve of the faculty, the students, the solidarity of the entire student community, not to mention of the worldwide movement on behalf of CEU, has strengthened the hand of Michael Ignatieff, the president of the University. And as the “match” presently stands, the advantage is slowly moving in Mr. Ignatieff’s favor. The government has so far refused to negotiate with him, hoping that the U.S. government will be their partners. But what a miscalculation! The American government wouldn’t even want to hear about this matter, and they wouldn‘t talk to any official from Hungary either. The hapless government is slowly running out of options. Soon they will have only two choices: withdrawing the new, inhuman law, thus giving up on killing the university, or sitting down to talk to Mr. Ignatieff. And the fewer options they have left, the stronger his position will be. In this case, I expect that Mr. Ignatieff will not settle for anything less than an internationally guaranteed, ironclad warrant from the government assuring that no more interference will ever befall this long-suffering university.

As for me and my friends in the CEU community, we are confident and hopeful because thought and ideas are more potent than a petty tin pot dictator’s personal caprice and his thirst for vendetta.

April 22, 2017

Hungary, as a partner of Iran, is now in the nuclear business

As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.

Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.

In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”

On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.

These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Vice President Hossein Ali Amiri

Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.

LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”

More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.

We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.

April 7, 2017

Situation report on the fight for Central European University

Yesterday Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University who as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a bitter letter on her Facebook page. She said that she and her husband left the United States in 2001 at considerable financial sacrifice in order for her to return to Hungary and join the faculty of CEU as an associate professor. It was a dream come true until April 4, 2017. As of that date, she finds herself part of an institution that “meddles in the internal affairs of Hungary and represents foreign interests.” What she finds most disappointing is that “colleagues, friends, and family don’t stand by her wholeheartedly.” They keep saying “the laws must be observed, and their glances indicate disapproval. Or, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t dare because I may be blacklisted.’”

Honest words, an honest description of what’s going on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but one must ask: Dear Diana, how is it possible that you haven’t noticed that something is very wrong with the party you dutifully voted for every four years? How is it that you as a proud Christian who gave birth to seven children and who, as you feel necessary to mention, “all attend parochial schools,” haven’t realized that this government’s alleged Christianity is hollow? Is it only now, when your own job is at stake, that you discover that something is wrong with the government you helped keep in power? Her statement ends with a whimper: “I am grateful for the support of those who dared to speak, dared to demonstrate, dared to share. Many of them are government-honoring [kormánytisztelő] Christian citizens, who for the first time said that this shouldn’t have been done.”

Fortunately most members of CEU’s administration, beginning with its president, Michael Ignatieff, are determined to fight and win. The contrast between the timid Hungarian academics and the international administration and faculty of CEU couldn’t be greater. Although President Ignatieff and Provost Liviu Matei have emphasized the support they have received from Hungarian colleagues and other Hungarian institutions of higher learning, the truth is that few have stood by CEU. Most of them have been quiet, but there was one “chancellor”—a newly appointed government watchdog over and above the university president and the senate—who outright welcomed the move of the government against CEU. The chancellor of the University of Debrecen pointed out that other Hungarian universities are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting foreign students because of CEU’s ability to grant American degrees. The administration of Corvinus University was not exactly supportive either. President András Lánczi, the man who got the job as president of the university at the express wish of Viktor Orbán, also stressed the need for “a level legal playing field” for all Hungarian universities. It is true that 250 students and members of Corvinus University’s faculty published a supporting statement, but András Lánczi immediately fired off an e-mail reminding them of the university’s “ethical code,” which obliges members of the university community to maintain the good name of the university in their communications with the world.

Meanwhile the government is doing its best to mislead and intimidate. Two days ago an incredible number of policemen surrounded the parliament building on the occasion of the second demonstration in support of CEU. What was most disturbing was that in front of the row of policemen were apparent civilian strongmen who, as a video shows, provoked some members of the crowd. As it turned out, they were plainclothes policemen. While the uniformed police stood by motionless, these characters were belligerent. Almost as if they wanted to create a reason to arrest a few of the demonstrators. After a while they were recalled by a man in civilian clothes standing behind the police lines.

Last night two organizers of the demonstrations, a Hungarian and a foreigner, received unexpected visits from the police. Government papers want the public to believe that the demonstrators were almost exclusively foreigners. Magyar Hírlap­ reported that the government, as a result of the protest against the treatment of CEU, will be able to uncover the whole Soros network, which engages in such activities as “destabilization efforts by CEU graduates in states along the migration route, for example in Macedonia and Albania.”

The “parrot commando” keeps repeating the same false accusations against CEU, which they persist in calling Soros University. Until recently, László Palkovics, who is in charge of higher education, was given the task of explaining how eminently rational the Hungarian government’s position on CEU is. He steadfastly refused to admit that the amendments’ real purpose was to drive CEU out of the country. On the other hand, his boss, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, at last told the truth in a radio interview. “There is no need to beat around the bush. There is no need to hide. We ought to say straight out that we don’t want Central European University to function in its present form.” He added that if the United States and CEU want to continue in the present legal framework, “they have to invest.” That is, build a brand new campus in the United States.

The outcome envisaged by Balog is unlikely to materialize. President Michael Ignatieff is in the United States at present and, according to the latest news, has already conferred with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. (Ignatieff was certainly more successful at the State Department than Hungary’s foreign minister, who visited Washington about two weeks ago and couldn’t meet with anyone at the Foggy Bottom.) He also talked with Fiona Hill, a member of the White House’s National Security Council who advises the president on European and Russian affairs. Next, Ignatieff is off to Berlin and, I trust, to Brussels as well. Angela Merkel’s spokesman already articulated the German government’s position on the matter.

Meeting with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs

The European Parliament is also responding. Five of the eight political formations have condemned the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU. Even within the caucus of the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the 12-member Fidesz delegation belongs, a storm is brewing. It was the leader of the Fidesz group, József Szájer, who provoked the storm by writing an e-mail to the other members of the EPP caucus in which the Fidesz members contended that critics of the law have been “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and are fighting with a “virtual reality.” They added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” This e-mail apparently prompted an angry reaction. EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, tweeted that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” Frank Engel, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg, was less polite. He replied in an e-mail: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening, and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

Time and again the European People’s Party caucus has saved Viktor Orbán’s skin in Brussels. It has been reluctant to expel its Fidesz members, who really don’t belong in this group. The Fidesz delegation would feel much more at home in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists of Europe, joining their Polish and euroskeptic British friends. But the EPP doesn’t want to lose 12 members from its caucus. Although it is the largest in the European Parliament, its lead is not overwhelming. Still, even without Fidesz it would remain the largest caucus, with 205 members. The Socialists and Democrats have 189 members. To shield a dictatorial regime for the sake of a few votes is too high a price to pay.

April 6, 2017

Central European University in Viktor Orbán’s crosshairs

It was on February 11 that I wrote a post titled “Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest.” What prompted my post was an article “Can the Soros-School Stay?” that appeared in Figyelő, a once respectable financial paper acquired by Mária Schmidt, Viktor Orbán’s adviser on matters of history. This opening salvo was followed by at least four articles in Magyar Idők, the semi-official paper of the Orbán government, all aimed at discrediting the university. It seemed that the government had decided that the time was ripe to do what it had been contemplating for quite a while: get rid of CEU once and for all. I ended my post with these words: “What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.”

Obviously, Viktor Orbán thinks that Donald Trump is doing splendidly and that his own move against George Soros, who after all supported Hillary Clinton, and Soros’s Budapest university is not only timely but has every promise of success. Well, Trump isn’t doing so splendidly, and bashing Soros wouldn’t do much to move the needle on his 35% approval rating. But, as the Hungarian government has formulated its proposed legislation against CEU, that’s really not the problem. What the Orbán government is demanding for the continued existence of CEU cannot be satisfied. Washington has nothing to do with a university accredited in the State of New York.

I don’t know, of course, what was in Orbán’s head when, in the middle of the night, the amendments to the Law on Higher Education were posted on the website of the Hungarian Parliament. I assume he hoped, at the very least, that there would be no response from a more sympathetic United States government. But he was wrong. The U.S. Embassy in Budapest released a strongly worded statement:

The United States is very concerned about the legislation proposed by the Hungarian Government yesterday that would severely impact the operations of the Central European University in Budapest…. The University is an important success story in the U.S.-Hungarian relationship, and it enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Government. The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University.

Such a statement cannot be issued without the approval of the State Department.

I should add that if the Hungarian government wants to negotiate with the U.S., it will have to negotiate not with the Secretary of Education but with the governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat. Moreover, George Pataki, the former Republican governor of the state, is on the board of trustees of CEU. All in all, Orbán will have a hard time realizing his plans.

Large crowd at Michael Ignatieff’s press conference

This afternoon Michal Ignatieff gave a press conference which was attended by hundreds, including diplomats of the U.S., Canadian, German, Swedish, Dutch, and Romanian embassies. I am personally grateful to the Romanians, the only country from the region, for standing up for the academic freedom of a U.S.-Hungarian university.

Ignatieff, who is a very measured man, was visibly angry. He announced that Viktor Orbán is mistaken if he thinks that there will be a Trump-Orbán summit about the fate of CEU because he will be the one who will negotiate about the future of his university. He added that earlier the university’s administration demanded only the withdrawal of the amendments but now, after the Hungarian state violated their trust, they expect a new bilateral agreement that will guarantee the independence of the university. Earlier, in an interview he revealed that the university “plans to show [the Hungarian government] over the next week or so that messing with us comes with costs.” The university administration also announced that it is contemplating legal action against Origo, the latest acquisition of the government’s propaganda machine, because of the internet site’s falsification of facts in connection with the operation of CEU.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the usual double talk reigns. László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, whose rapid-fire explanations are hard to follow, tried to convince his audience at a press conference this morning that the amendments to the law on higher education have nothing to do with CEU. It is just one of the 28 foreign universities that operate in Hungary. It apparently took about 20 questions from journalists before he admitted that CEU is the only institution among the 28 that has no campus abroad and thus cannot operate in the future.

Szilárd Németh, one of Viktor Orbán’s deputies in Fidesz, usually gets the nastiest messages to deliver. In this case, he was surprised that this whole case caused such an altercation. It is just a routine affair: there are many universities that don’t function as working universities abroad, and this is considered to be fraud by Hungarian law. He sanctimoniously announced that “all educational enterprises must obey the laws of the country.” What he forgot to add was that this law hasn’t been enacted yet. He announced that this is “not a Soros problem” yet said that “all of those [in the Hungarian parliament] who rose to defend the Soros university made it clear that they actually serve the interests of George Soros.”

The university had important defenders. The slavishly servile Batthyány Circle of Professors, as usual, was silent at a time when they should be defending the integrity of academic freedom. On the other hand, László Lovász, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, stood by CEU and even offered himself as a possible middleman in future negotiations between the government and the university. He declared that “CEU is a very significant research center and international educational institution. It is good that it is situated in Budapest.”

Even a Fidesz-supported deputy mayor of District XV in Budapest, Zoltán Balázs, spoke out in defense of the university. But he is not a run-of-the-mill Fidesz politician. He happens to be a professor of political science at Corvinus University who also taught off and on at CEU. Balázs is a true conservative. Earlier he was often a guest in political discussion groups at ATV. He wasn’t my favorite, not so much because of his conservative ideas but rather because of his mannered and stilted style. But this time I was pleased that he sat down and wrote an article that was published in HVG titled “CEU and the freedom of conscience.” In it, he pointed out that “there is no sane person who wouldn’t consider the quality of American universities in general to be the standard anywhere in the world.” He added that “the University is one of Hungary’s doors to the world.” At the end of the article Balázs shared his disappointment with the Hungarian government, writing: “I have given up all hope” that the current political climate will change for the better.

As far as the European Union is concerned, Frans Timmermans did bring up the issue at today’s meeting of the European Commission. Tibor Navracsics, commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, is studying the matter. I wrote to him to remind him of his academic past. I urge all of you to write to him as well. His e-mail address is cab-navracsics-contact@ec.europa.eu

March 29, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next target: Central European University in Budapest

One after the other, independent publications have been taken over by Fidesz loyalists. I covered the sad fate of Népszabadság and spent a considerable amount of time on the acquisition of regional papers, which are valuable additions to the growing network of the government propaganda machine.

One takeover I didn’t cover was the purchase of Figyelő (Observer), a highly respected financial weekly established 60 years ago. The new owner is Mária Schmidt, court historian of Viktor Orbán and director of the historically misleading House of Terror. Of course, Mária Schmidt is well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, but perhaps I didn’t report sufficiently on her wealth. She inherited a fortune when, in 2006, her husband died suddenly at the age of 53.

Figyelő had been ailing financially for over a year when Schmidt decided to “save” the paper in December 2016. She promised not to intervene in the day-to-day running of the paper or to interfere with its content. A month later, however, she appointed three prominent Fidesz ideologues to head the editorial board. Several journalists promptly resigned. That was at the end of January.

A few days later the new issue of Figyelő appeared with an article titled “Can the Soros-School stay?” Unfortunately, the article is not available online, but from the summaries by other publications we can reconstruct the gist of the story. According to Figyelő, in the summer of 2016 Viktor Orbán and George Soros had a discussion about Soros’s pride and joy, Central European University (CEU), which he established in Budapest. At that meeting the strong man of Hungary apparently reassured Soros that “he will not touch” CEU. But, continued Figyelő, “since last summer the international situation, with the election of Donald Trump as president, [has changed]. The Hungarian government might think that it can risk attacks against the university that it wouldn’t have tried earlier.” Figyelő claimed to know that one of Orbán’s ministers talked about CEU “as the main target in 2017.” He indicated that what they would really like is the departure of the whole institution from Budapest. The article was also full of untrue assertions about CEU, its students, and its faculty.

Michael Ignatieff, the new president of CEU, responded with a dignified open letter addressed to the “editor-in-chief” of Figyelő. He pointed out the benefits CEU has brought to Hungary in the last 25 years and the excellent relationships the university has with other academic institutions in Hungary and abroad. At the end of the letter he noted that the university is proud of George Soros, a Hungarian patriot, but the administration of the university is entirely free from outside pressure.

Anyone familiar with Mária Schmidt’s modus operandi should have known that President Ignatieff would get an answer. And that it would not be dignified as Ignatieff’s was. Instead, it would be a base attack on him, the university, and anything that has anything to do with liberalism.

Indeed, her response is a disgusting piece of prose, at the center of which is an attack on the speech Ignatieff gave at the launch of a project called Re-thinking Open Society. (A summary of the speech is available online.) In her rambling article, titled “An open society and a liberal revolution,” Schmidt talks about foundations financed by Soros as “military outposts of the U.S. State Department” and Ignatieff as “the Canadian liberal” whose “field of operation happens to be” in Hungary at the moment. He is “a passionate liberal.” That for Schmidt is the greatest sin anyone can commit.

Ignatieff is further accused of being soft on communism, which she says is especially disgraceful from someone whose ancestors were refugees from the Red Terror, “a fact that he doesn’t consider especially important.” (Ignatieff’s paternal grandfather was Count Pavel Ignatieff, the Russian minister of education during World War I, and his great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Ignatieff, a Russian statesman and diplomat.) How do we know that Ignatieff, who gives lectures on the subject, doesn’t know the first thing about the horrors of communism? Because “he always talks about communism in connection with Nazism and he always compares Hitler to Stalin.” Until now, Hungarian anti-Communists accused liberals of making excuses for communism and focusing only on Nazism, but if we can take Schmidt seriously they now consider communism even worse than Nazism and the horrors it brought to the world.

Ignatieff mentioned Václav Havel in his speech, who is not exactly Schmidt’s favorite. “Havel is significant for Ignatieff and the other liberals only because he published several articles in their most important publication, the New York Review of Books.” So much for Václav Havel.

Soros himself is accused of collaborating with the communists in the late 1980s and preferring left-wingers and liberals when it came to his grants. (Schmidt herself was a beneficiary of Soros’s generosity.) To quote her precisely: “Soros in Hungary as well as in other countries became the keeper of washed-out komcsik and libik. He is the embodiment of everything that deserves our contempt. Today Soros’s name means liberal and liberal means SZDSZ and SZDSZ means everything that is loathsome, unpatriotic, arrogant, and unacceptable.”

I guess these few lines will give the readers of Hungarian Spectrum a sense of Mária Schmidt’s latest masterpiece. I could go on and on about her defense of populism, Brexit, and Donald Trump, but that would take us too far from our topic: the fate of Central European University. The essence of the lengthy article comes at the very end: “CEU is George Soros’s outpost in Europe.” The implied verdict: Soros’s university has to go.

Schmidt’s attack opened a floodgate. A few days after her article appeared, Magyar Idők reported that CEU is letting 17 faculty members go because the university’s business school will merge with the department of economics. The pro-government mouthpiece claimed that all 17 professors were Hungarians and that they were extremely popular with the students. Magyar Idők also stated that the salaries of foreign faculty members are double those of Hungarians at CEU. A day later another article was published in the same paper, titled “They are cooking something in Soros’s witch’s kitchen.” The same unfounded and unverified accusation that Hungarian faculty members were fired solely because they were Hungarians was repeated. In vain did CEU try to explain that the faculty members of the Business School were not all Hungarians and that there are not different pay scales for foreign and native faculty members. Magyar Idők was not giving up. Today a new article was published in which they try to discredit CEU’s press release that pointed out the paper’s false statements. Magyar Idők claimed that CEU didn’t satisfactorily deny that only Hungarians were fired.

That’s where we are at the moment. What happens to CEU may depend, at least in part, on how successful Donald Trump is at implementing his plans at home and abroad. If he moves American democracy toward an illiberal state and if his followers keep bashing Soros, most likely Viktor Orbán will feel free to banish CEU from Hungary. But if he fails because of internal opposition and foreign resistance, perhaps these attacks will subside. Let’s hope so.

February 11, 2017